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A Fatal Likeness: Mary Shelley and Monsters

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Mary Shelley wrote the most famous monster story of all time, Frankenstein. Or did she really? That question is just one of the literary mysteries explored by Lynn Shepherd in her mesmerizing novel, A Fatal Likeness. Was Percy Bysshe Shelley insane or cruelly narcissistic or simply misunderstood? Were his poems reflective of reality or rooted entirely in his wild and torturing (to say nothing of tortured) imagination? Did Shelley sire the child of his step-sister-in-law Claire Clairmont, or was it Lord Byron, as the Shelley clan always claimed? And in what is a most tantalizing tangent for me (lover of letters that I am), do the surviving letters of Percy, Mary, and Claire tell the truth - or merely hint at what were dark and deep secrets for the twisted trio of lovers?

The novel begins with the daughter-in-law of the Shelleys, Jane Gibson, desperately trying to track down papers that might besmirch the image of Percy Bysshe Shelley which Jane has spent years burnishing and promoting. She hires a young investigator, Charles Maddox, to hunt down the papers she fears. It quickly becomes apparent that what Jane is after is quite something else, and that Maddox is quite something more than she expected. Maddox, heir to an uncle famous both for his investigations and his honor, intently hunts down the papers but finds much, much more than mere scraps of information. What he does with what he finds will set off a storm of released memories demanding attention, unanswered injustices clamoring for redress, and family secrets (and not only the Shelleys') screaming to be unveiled, after being hidden in darkness for so long.

The monster within us, the monster in the mirror, the monster in the past: monsters are everywhere, and suddenly Frankenstein seems almost prophetic. But will the ending -- destroy the monster! - be the necessary remedy? To be familiar with the novel Frankenstein, the history of the Shelleys, and the poetry of Shelley might help with unraveling the complicated plot of this amazing book but Shepherd does not assume any such prior knowledge on the part of her readers. She offers a very helpful chart of who was related to whom, and how, and in her final notes she delineates what is based on historical fact in her novel (most of it) and what comes from her own fecund and clever imagination.

Shepherd invents just enough to tie all the open questions, undeniable facts, and potent possibilities together in a wholly believable and chilling story of love, deceit, heartbreak, revenge, and loss. She also manages to conjure up England in the 1800s, along with a cast of richly developed characters, while also incorporating the poetry of Shelley into her text, both in hidden ways and in direct quotations (and in letters!). She's inspired in me a whole new interest in Shelley, and a renewed desire to read his works, as well Frankenstein, all over again. That Shepherd also used letters as clues to a most horrible crime (and the chief instigator to more than one death) sealed the deal for me: Shepherd is a marvel, and A Fatal Likeness is a must-read.